A Lump of Foam: Thoughts on Emptiness

During a recent sitting group discussion on beginner’s mind, while considering a passage from Suzuki Roshi‘s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, the conversation turned to emptiness, an idea central to the Zen tradition. In many Zen monasteries the Heart Sutra is chanted at least once a week. In it, Avalokiteshvara tells the Buddha’s disciple Shariputra what he has discovered about the empty nature of phenomena:

“Shariputra, form is emptiness, emptiness is form; emptiness does not differ from form, form does not differ from emptiness… the same is true of feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness.”

These five — form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness — are the skandas, or “aggregates”, in the usual translation.  They can be thought of as the five aspects of human experience, both physical (form) and mental (the other four). Avalokiteshvara explains that the true nature of all experience is emptiness. And he doesn’t stop with the skandas:

“All phenomena are marked by emptiness. There is no birth and no cessation. There is no purity and no impurity. There is no decrease and no increase.”

These are bold claims. “Birth and cessation” refer to the Buddha’s teaching on impermanence: all conditioned things are born and pass away. “Purity and impurity” refer to the precepts governing our ethical conduct. “Decrease and increase” refer to the idea that practice accrues merit and fortunate circumstances in the future. These are central Buddhist teachings, and Avalokiteshvara is telling Shariputra that, at their heart, they are not opposites, not even different, because they are all empty. The Heart Sutra is both a teaching on emptiness and a teaching on non-duality. It says that the dualistic nature of the Buddha’s teachings is, on a deep level, a fiction. Avalokiteshvara then lists even more: the six sense organs, six sense objects, and six sense consciousnesses; the twelve links of dependent origination; the path, insight, and even enlightenment itself. All empty.

In his commentary to a new translation of the Heart Sutra, Thich Nhat Hanh explains its importance:

“The insight of prajnaparamita [the perfection of the wisdom of emptiness] is the most liberating insight that helps us overcome all pairs of opposites such as birth and death, being and non-being, defilement and immaculacy, increasing and decreasing, subject and object, and so on, and helps us to get in touch with the true nature of no birth/no death, no being/no non-being….”

The Mahayana tradition, which includes Zen, arose in part in response to the dichotomies emphasized in the Therevada tradition, and thus the Heart Sutra has become one of their central teachings. But the teaching on emptiness was already there in the Therevada canon. The most obvious example I know of is the sutta (SN 22.95) in which the Buddha compares each of the five skandas to a different empty thing:

“Monks, suppose that a large lump of foam were floating down this Ganges River, and a man with good eyesight were to see it, observe it, & appropriately examine it. To him … it would appear empty, void, without substance: for what substance would there be in a lump of foam? In the same way, a monk sees, observes, & appropriately examines any form that is past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near. To him … it would appear empty, void, without substance: for what substance would there be in form?”

Form is a lump of foam. Likewise, feelings are water bubbles. Perception is a mirage. Thoughts are the heartwood of a banana tree. Consciousness is a magic trick. What substance could there be in any of these?

The teaching on anatta, or “not-self”, is another way that the Buddha pointed to the truth of emptiness:

“Form, monks, is not self. If form were the self, this form would not lend itself to dis-ease. It would be possible [to say] with regard to form, ‘Let this form be thus. Let this form not be thus.’ But precisely because form is not self, form lends itself to dis-ease. And it is not possible [to say] with regard to form, ‘Let this form be thus. Let this form not be thus.’ (SN 22.59)

Form lends itself to a lack of ease, to suffering. And we don’t control it — things arise and pass away without our having any say in it. In his compilation of suttas, In the Buddha’s WordsBhikkhu Bodhi explains why the Buddha gets to nonself by way of impermanence and suffering:

“…[The Buddha] uses the characteristic of impermanence to reveal the characteristic of suffering, and both together to reveal the characteristic of nonself. The suttas take this indirect route to the characteristic of nonself because the selfless nature of things is so subtle that often it cannot be seen except when pointed to by the other two characteristics.”

If the characteristic of nonself, of emptiness, is so hard to see, why go through the trouble? Why try to grock something so esoteric? Bhikkhu Bodhi continues:

“When we recognize that the things we identify as ourself are impermanent and bound up with suffering, we realize that they lack the essential marks of authentic selfhood and we thereby stop identifying with them. The different expositions of the three characteristics all thus eventually converge on the eradication of clinging. They do so by showing, with regard to each aggregate, ‘This is not mine, this I am not, this is not myself.'”

When we realize, deeply, that a thing is not ours, we let it go. All traditions agree that the main goal of practice is the eradication of clinging. Awakening is just that, since clinging is the root of suffering. To perceive, even for a moment, the empty nature of our bodies, of trees and wind and houses and cars, of the machinations of our minds and all other minds, is to step a little closer to freedom.